Grant Hill's time is now (cont.)
The first operation was performed in April 2000, when Hill was still playing for the Pistons, by an independent surgeon named John Bergfeld at the Cleveland Clinic. When Hill was traded to the Magic in the first week of August, Bergfeld forwarded the instructions for Hill's rehab to Orlando, where his friend James Barnett was the team's head physician. "You'll be in good hands," Bergfeld said.
Then, in September, Barnett and his wife Missy flew their twin-engine plane to Mississippi. The plan was to visit relatives in Brookhaven and then continue to an Ole Miss football game. The plane went down in a grassy field near the landing strip in Brookhaven and both passengers were killed. Hill arrived in Orlando with a $93 million contract, a mandate to deliver a title, and a medical staff in mourning and in flux. "The lines of communication got crossed," Hill says.
Starting in training camp, the Magic wanted to see what Hill could do. Hill wanted to show them. "There was a shared excitement for him to play," says then Magic general manager John Gabriel, now the Knicks director of scouting. But Hill knew his ankle was still ailing. "I was limping. I was in pain," he says. "It got to the point where people were telling me to play through it. I was shocked at how casual they were. I started questioning myself like, 'Maybe this isn't a big deal, maybe it's just scar tissue.'"
Gabriel disputes the notion that Hill was encouraged to play through pain, "I don't think anybody one way or another could take the blame," he says , and a person familiar with the situation said Gabriel told trainers and coaches that Hill's long-term health was to be the priority.
So Hill played in training camp and the preseason -- until he found out from Bergfeld that he hadn't wanted Hill to play until late November or early December. Soon after, a CT scan revealed a nonunion in the ankle, which meant that two parts of the bone had healed but not healed together. It took three years to fix. "We thought it was a stress-reaction fracture, and he would heal like anybody else and come back," Gabriel says.
The Magic was not alone in its bewilderment. Three years in a row the NBA, presuming Hill was on the verge of a return, denied Orlando an injury exception, which would have allowed the Magic to sign a replacement for Hill. Gabriel called and visited dozens of foot and ankle specialists. "Everyone had a different opinion," he says.
Hill says he deferred to the Magic's choice of surgeon so that "the lines of communication [between doctor and team] would be better than the first time." The team picked Mark Myerson, the president of the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society, to perform Hill's second and third operations, in Baltimore. "After the third one, Dr. Myerson told me that nothing else could be done," Hill says. "So I went back to Duke."
Nunley alleviated pressure on the ankle by removing a wedge of bone from the heel. He ordered Hill to sit out the following season and gave him a piece of news that infused him with hope. Despite everything the ankle had endured, the joints and ligaments were still strong. The only problem was the bone. Once that heals, Hill told himself, I'll have fewer miles on my body than other guys my age. I'm going to be able to make this up on the back end.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, the injuries kept Hill young. If he had not been quarantined for so long, he might not be able to guard the game's best player now. Gentry's daughter has the perfect nickname for him: Benjamin Button.
For those who like their playoff series served up as morality plays, Bryant and Hill form an intriguing matchup: one of the most polarizing figures in sports against one of the most beloved. Kerr still wishes Hill had married his daughter. Gentry compares him to President Obama. This season, after Hill won the NBA Sportsmanship Award for a record third time, Nunley called him and said, "There's no one in the world like you."
Hill has been famous for more than two decades and never generated a whiff of controversy. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he remembers the scandals involving presidential candidate Gary Hart and D.C. mayor Marion Barry, and his mother, Janet Hill, warning him, "Don't fear failure. Success ruins more people."
But even Hill, preternaturally cool, needed time to assuage the bitterness that built up in him in Orlando. "It was hard for me to go to work there every day and be around people who I felt failed me," he says. "Even now, that arena has a lot of dark memories for me." He pauses for a moment, remembering that he might be stepping back into that arena in a couple of weeks for the NBA Finals. "I might have to get over that pretty soon," he says.
Hill arrived in Phoenix three years ago, for the cut rate of $1.9 million per season, and the day he signed his contract he went through a 2½-hour physical assessment with the Suns' renowned medical staff. On the drive back to his hotel he nearly broke down at the wheel, overwhelmed by the care he finally felt he was getting. Last summer Hill had a chance to sign with the Knicks for more money and the Celtics for what seemed like a better chance at a championship, but he re-upped with the Suns in part for their trainers.
Hill has hired a macrobiotic chef, sees an acupuncturist and has bought into the Suns' innovative corrective-exercise program, in which every player is assessed daily and given exercises to address physical imbalances. Last season Hill played all 82 games for the first time. This season he played 81. Others can hog the points and rebounds; to Hill, minutes are the metric that matters most. Each is an unexpected gift.
He prefers to reflect on what the ankle gave him rather than what it took away. It gave him a more thorough knowledge of medicine and the mechanics of movement. It gave him a basis from which to counsel young players such as Jameer Nelson of the Magic and Shaun Livingston of the Wizards through injuries. It put to rest the myth of his perfect life. "It may have been bad for my career," Hill says, "but it was good for my development as a human being. In a weird way I'm glad it happened."
When Hill went to Phoenix, he expected to be retiring around 2010. Instead he has reinvented himself as a player and won a long-awaited turn in the spotlight. He can see himself playing another three years. Political office, which Obama suggested he consider after Hill introduced him at a fund-raiser, can wait. Kobe Bryant cannot.
This is the ultimate challenge in a career defined by them. Hill has seen Bryant enough to know what's coming: the killer crossover, the clever up-and-under, the maddening fadeaway just over everybody's fingertips. "The key is not getting discouraged," Hill says. "You can't ever get discouraged."
That happens to be his forte.
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